Eat the Invasion: Does it make sense to promote the idea of controlling non-native species by eating them?

A native mussel covered with invasive zebra mussels // Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

A native mussel covered with invasive zebra mussels // Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

In the 1890s, a group of Shakespeare fanatics in New York devised a romantic plan to honor the bard: release a member of every animal species mentioned in his plays into the wilds of America. After a few false starts, a group of stocky black starlings, casually mentioned in “Henry IV,” flew into the sky above Central Park. Today, millions of their descendants are rampant nationwide—spreading disease and causing untold damage to crops.

Today, we know well how a new species can damage an ecosystem, and yet, through simple negligence and deliberate idiocy, humans continue transporting them to new environments. Hence the problem of invasive species, which costs billions of dollars to control and mitigate the harm caused to our ecology and economy. Thus, a quirky idea resurfaces every so often: can’t we just eat some of these problem animals into extinction?

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Our human ability to decimate a population of animals by way of hunger is well established (seen any bison or passenger pigeons around lately?) So, the idea goes, can’t we turn that voraciousness on species that are harming our lands and waterways? It’s a romantic idea, and a fantastic one, that we could turn such a character flaw into a benevolent action by simply choosing our targets more carefully. But more importantly, does it work, and should we as a society encourage it?

Of course, several invasive species just aren’t edible. There isn’t enough meat on zebra mussels. We can’t harvest glutamates from milfoil. And even though it’s said that King Henry I of England died after eating far too many of them, no Americans have the same appetite for the nightmare-inducing alien leech that is sea lamprey.

But several invaders are quite tasty, indeed. Non-native plants, like lamb’s quarters, watercress, purslane, and dandelions, can make for tremendous eating. Perhaps restaurants could do the environment a favor by sneaking those greens onto menus with a little more regularity. (Of course, finding a regular supply at a good price is a whole other problem.)

And several invasive marine animals could become prime dinnertime targets as well. We can eat Chinese mitten crabs, lionfish, and—perhaps top of mind for many in the Upper Midwest—silver carp (often referred to as Asian carp). The species was introduced to the southern U.S. in the 1970s to control the growth of algae in water treatment plants and aquacultural operations. They quickly escaped containment and have infested a large portion of the Mississippi River watershed.

A Silver Carp, known by many as an Asian Carp // Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

A silver carp, often referred to as Asian carp // Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

So why aren’t we eating them? It could be an issue of branding (like how no one ate Patagonian toothfish before it was called Chilean sea bass) or one of taste (some think the flesh is too oily) or functionality (a common complaint from would-be diners: they’re awfully boney.) But those are relatively mild and malleable concerns. Advocates of invasivorism—that’s the practice of deliberately eating invasive species—can point to the sea change in attitude towards lobster, which were maligned a century ago as the cockroaches of the sea, as proof that tastes for certain animals evolve over time.

But changing dining attitudes is an uphill climb. That was the case for a Minnesota-based company, Traditional Fisheries, that attempted to monetize the lionfish infestation along the Atlantic coast, even taking their pitch as far as “Shark Tank.” During their pitch, shark investor Robert Herjavec summed up their problem: “you have unlimited supply and no demand.” No sharks chose to invest, and Traditional Fisheries doesn’t appear to be functioning today.

With silver carp, though, there is demand, even if it’s not here in America. Some fisheries further south in the Mississippi River watershed have had success flash freezing silver carp and selling them to China, where they’re widely eaten, and where the native stocks are imperiled by pollution and overfishing.

But even if we all had a taste for carp, here’s the obvious catch-22 of any business built on the back of an invasive species—we don’t want the species to proliferate, but a business would demand a healthy and continuous supply. Would making these species a market resource actually encourage their growth? Would it inspire other would-be entrepreneurs to develop (often illegal) stocks of their own?

Luckily, these are only hypothetical questions in Minnesota, because our lakes and rivers are faring much better than the nationwide average. Only about five percent of Minnesota’s waterways have an invasive species problem.

“And we have 11,842 lakes, 3,000 public accesses, and tens of thousands of private accesses. If infection by aquatic invasives were inevitable, it would have happened by now,” says Doug Jensen, Aquatic Invasive Species Project Coordinator at Minnesota Sea Grant. “It means that invasive species management is working in the state of Minnesota.”

So perhaps the main problem with invasivorism is that it takes attention away from the management practices that are actually known to solve the problem. Minnesota has been able to slow the spread of invasive species thanks to a populace that’s highly engaged with its waterways (1.5 million of us are anglers, one in six of us own a boat) and are educated on the problem (who doesn’t know to “Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers!”?)

“If infection by aquatic invasives were inevitable, it would have happened by now. It means that invasive species management is working in the state of Minnesota.”

– Doug Jensen, Minnesota Sea Grant

This isn’t to say small-scale attempts to eat invasives are worthless. We can, and should, be looking at every avenue possible to diversify our food sources. Illinois has seen some success with its Target Hunger Now! campaign, which encourages fishers to capture and donate silver carp to be processed into protein-rich meals for those facing food insecurity. And if your lake is infected with rusty crayfish, then go ahead and have people over for a Cajun boil.

It’s hard to fully dismiss the idea of invasivorism because there’s a pure impulse lurking at its core. It’s an idea that presumes that there’s a problem with the way we eat now, and we should focus our attention on environmentally sound ways of eating. But in that regard, let’s keep our eye on the ball, here. Should we try to eat zebra mussels? No. But should we replace a meal of red meat each week with regular mussels, ones we know to be both delicious and sustainable? Absolutely. Should we eat silver carp? Sure. But more likely, we need to be eating more of our native lake fish, like whitefish and cisco, and less tuna and halibut flown in from thousands of miles away.

In general, we need to view invasivorism only as a last resort, and one not likely to fully solve the problem. Invasives get to be so by having very little resistance in their environment, thus it’s so much easier to control an invasion if it’s detected early (can you imagine how much silver carp Americans would have to eat to truly slow it down its spread at this point?) If it ever gets to the point in Minnesota, it can only be because public awareness and education, watercraft inspection, and law enforcement have all failed. But so far, those things are working splendidly in Minnesota.

We in the Bold North are tuned into our waterways, so let’s keep it that way and remain vigilant. So check your boats. Stop aquatic hitchhikers. Stay engaged. Let’s make sure Minnesota never has a problem so huge we think of eating our way out.

John Garland About John Garland

John Garland is the Deputy Editor at the Growler Magazine. Find him on twitter (@johnpgarland) or in every coffee shop on West 7th Street.